Cigar store Indians

In the shadow of MSU Museum’s general store installation is a label-less “cigar store Indian.”

The use of emblems or figures to sell goods has a long history. The life-sized, wood sculptures that have come to be called a “cigar store Indians” first appeared as advertisements for tobacco shops in seventeenth-century Europe. Native Americans of North and South America had introduced tobacco to European explorers and settlers, who then introduced into Europe the practice of “drinking” (smoking) the fragrant leaves.

Yet European carvers hadn’t seen in person a Native American, so these early advertising sculptures looked more like the African slaves being taken, traded, and transported across the Atlantic Ocean. Thus these sculptures were called “Black Boys” and “Virginians.”

By the early eighteenth century, these figures, now more “Indian” in appearance and clothing, were advertising tobacco shops in the American colonies. Female figures outnumbered male figures at first, but by the early nineteenth century the “cigar store Indian” was male. By the turn of the twentieth century, city ordinances regulating sidewalk access removed many of these advertising figures from view, although many other visual stereotypes of Native Americans were still used in advertising many different types of consumer goods.

Today the “cigar store Indian” is considered by many as a shameful and degrading cultural stereotype of Native American peoples. Many Americans are calling for an end to the use of race-based stereotypes for sports teams’ logos, as team mascots, and in advertisements.

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Detroit’s Daniel Scotten & Co. made Hiawatha Flake Cut Tobacco. Tin, Collections of the MSU Museum.

It isn’t clear how the decision was made to include this advertising figure next to the general store. Inside the store are stacked a number of packs of tobacco and other tobacco-related items, some of which bear caricatures and images of Native Americans. But no connection is drawn in the installation’s interpretation. As far as is known, the figure has been in place since 1970. I would like to know if there were any discussions about interpreting this figure in light of the American Indian Movement’s activities in the era, including the occupation of Alcatraz Island beginning in 1969 and the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee. (There is also no interpretive connection to the trader’s cabin, about twenty paces away from the store in Heritage Hall.)

We are adding a text panel next to the “cigar store Indian” and will be considering this issue as we work towards a new interpretation of the general store .

Further Reading:
Behnken, Brian D.,  and Gregory D. Smithers, eds. Racism in American Popular Media: From Aunt Jemima to the Frito Bandito. Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2015.

Gross, Eleanor. “Containing the Indian Threat: Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America.” MA thesis, University of Washington, 2011.

Sessions, Ralph. The Shipcarvers’ Art: Figureheads and Cigar-Store Indians in Nineteenth-Century America. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005.

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